Warrior came out three years ago this September, without much tumult or attention. Covering a sport (MMA and the UFC, specifically) that was and is still on the rise, the movie failed to gain commercial traction, failing to outgross its budget. It makes for an odd mix, this wonderful film. We’re used to action movies spending and winning big, but this one focuses on family drama and various struggles for reconciliation rather than special effects or moves. To summarize far too briefly, Tom Hardy plays Tommy, a Marine, who comes home to his estranged father asking for help in training for a MMA tournament. Meanwhile, his brother — Joel Edgerton of The Great Gatsby — enters the tournament due to the financial shortcomings of being a high school physics teacher. Both brothers remain bitter towards their father, formerly abusive and alcoholic, throughout the narrative.
This has changed to a degree since, but Edgerton and Hardy were certainly undervalued when Warrior hit the big screens. Edgerton is still not a household name, but he was fantastic in Gatsby and seems poised to stand out in the Whitey Bulger story, Black Mass, due out next year. Hardy has achieved greater fame in recent years, starting with Inception in 2010 and continuing with this film, The Dark Knight Rises, and not This Means War (One must wonder how miserable Hardy was, definitely aware of how bad that movie was going to be as he made it.). Despite a dearth of mid-game explosions, Hardy is brilliant as Tommy Conlon, fueled by redirected angers and resentments. As the Conlon patriarch, Nick Nolte sort of came out of nowhere to earn an Oscar nomination, his third but first in over a decade (Side note: Christopher Plummer was superb in Beginners and was the sexier pick, but Nolte deserved to win.). He plays Paddy gruff yet vulnerable, constantly doomed but inevitably loving.
Before I get to just how emotional this movie is, let me set the record straight: I noted how this film is different than many other action pictures, but don’t let that fool you. Edgerton and Hardy are RIPPED in this movie, and their moves in the ring are impressive. I can’t claim any MMA expertise, but the fight scenes are tense and realistic to my eye. They’re violent and can be hard to watch, but they give the movie an authentic feel. Hardy uses a funny accent, as he is wont to do, and the edginess between the brothers and between them and their father is eerily believable.
There are some lighter moments, such as Edgerton’s Brendan explaining his bruises to his principal, but for the most part the script’s humor is tinged with bitterness, like Tommy’s jabs at his father: “So you found God, huh? That’s awesome. See, Mom kept calling out for him but he wasn’t around. I guess Jesus was down at the mill forgiving all the drunks. Who knew?” Moreover, the war in Iraq never becomes a huge part of the movie, but it’s clearly a huge part of Tommy’s past, and his anger flows out in all directions from numerous sources, relentless towards his father and opponents.
But above all, this movie becomes and remains great because of its final scene. As you might expect, the brothers find themselves squaring off in the finals of Sparta, the aforementioned tournament, and a fight for the ages ensues. Tommy’s volatile combination of PTSD, regret, and pure rage makes for compelling tactics, and Brendan’s brotherly and fighting instincts clash to an almost poetic extent. The first chunk of the fight gives us increasing tension, and the conclusion is simply one of the most emotional, gut-wrenching scenes I have ever watched. Tommy hopelessly swings for victory with one good arm, and Brendan puts him down with tears in his eyes, pleading for his brother to tap out, to relent and become vulnerable to his family members for the first time in many years.
A wise fighter once said: “It ain’t about how hard you’re hit, it’s about how you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.” That quote may apply to lots of fighting stories, but it rings especially true in the Conlon family, whose members have taken too many hits to count but continue to move forward, though the progress may be at times slow and resisted. World-class fighting and acting take place against middle-class backdrops, which makes for a movie both unusual and extremely compelling for us brainwashed American cinephiles. This movie never received the praise it deserved, but lucky for you we’re here to remind you that there’s still time. There’s always time. Just ask Tommy.